Beyond and Beneath – SPOTS

29th March, 2018

In my last post about If nothing changes…, I looked at one way to narrow down a situation to identify the root cause of the problem. Once you have a clearer idea of what the real problem is, the next step is to work through it in a structured way using something like the time-honored SPOT technique (Situation, Problem, Opportunity, Tatics).

Some of my students and clients find that working their way through the details and specifics of a single problem harder that looking at the big picture. One of the biggest mistakes they can make during that exercise is not identifying the real root cause of the problem. The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) expressed it like this:

Hacking at the branches

When a team is discussing a single problem or a group of perhaps unrelated problems, a worksheet can sometimes be really useful. It’s real strength is to capture their discussion and thinking in a systematic way. Then, at the end of their time working through each of their issues, there is a simple document trail that shows what they all agreed on:

SPOT worksheet

The first box only has room for one sentence. Once they can state the situation the problem has led them to be in, without technical terms or jargon, they have made the first step towards it’s resolution. Stating the situation first and forcing it to be only one sentence long is important. Lengthy, rambling statements are of little use; the aim is to state what the real result of the problem is. For example, if a piece of equipment has failed, it is easy rant and rave, complaining about vendors and budget constraints when really, the real situation is simply: “The support group email server application has failed.” 

The second box is a little larger. What problem has that situation caused? If they can state that in just two sentences, then we are a little further along: “The application automates  their help desk email follow-up replies. Doing that manually is difficult.”

In two steps, we have stopped moaning, complaining and sharing irrelevant information around the table by stopping talking around the problem and stating what the problem is. More importantly, we have probably determined that it is actually a problem that needs solving. Or, we know that it does not need to be solved. A problem only needs to be solved if it is causing a situation that is unacceptable to one or more people. When you get down to root causes, some things that first appeared to be problems are just noise, the background evidence of some deeper problem. If you solve only the noise, you have only hacked at the branch; the real problem has not gone away….

The next step is brainstorming ideas. Note there is no box for that since every suggestion, no matter how obscure or apparently dumb, is off-the-table. Discussing what to do after the situation and problem have been articulated is really important since without first establishing those two key statements, you have no way of determining the difference between the root and the branches; they all look the same.

The final step is crucial; agree, as a team, what is to be done. Write down what you agreed and then make sure someone, and only one person, is willing to lead the problem resolution. They can co-opt in people to help them but my experience has been that if one person takes responsibility for getting it done, then things will get done without finger-pointing “I thought they were going to do it..” later.

Here at my university, we had a long-standing issue with the wording of a course descriptor. When I took over the course, I found an email trail of the Examination Board who had raised the problem every semester for the past three years. However, no-one in that meeting had taken responsibility for assigning the task of fixing it to anyone. It took one brief editing session to fix it, two emails to get it to the right person and in the next board meeting, they signed it off. Remember the title of the last post: If nothing changes, then nothing changes. 

It really was that simple. I used the SPOT form to make sure I understood what the problem with the wording was by talking to the person who had raised the issue originally.  I then found out who could approve the change and what I needed to do to submit it for approval.

You can download a copy of the SPOT worksheet here

The next installment Looking ahead …

Author: Rockweather

I am a writer, musician, teacher, and researcher at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) in Auckland, New Zealand.

2 thoughts on “Beyond and Beneath – SPOTS”

  1. Love it and have been using a variation called a SPADE for years. Situation, problem, alternatives, decision, execution. My old boss would say “if you haven’t thought about it enough to write it down, then you haven’t thought enough about it.”


    1. Thanks Nic,
      I like the idea of “Alternatives”. We sort of imply that in the middle no-box but I think it is worth mentioning the word itself. Getting student teams to physically write this stuff down with a pen and paper has proven to be really worthwhile.


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